You always like to be prepared for the worst-case scenario, especially if you’ll be hundreds or thousands of feet up in the air like you are when hot air ballooning. Will the balloon pilot have parachutes you can use to land if the balloon malfunctions?
Hot air balloons don’t carry parachutes because it isn’t necessary. The balloon pilot will always ensure the burner system has the fuel for the trip. If one or both burners failed and the balloon couldn’t sustain flight, then the wind within the hot air balloon would make it behave like a parachute, guiding you down to the ground.
We’re here to put your mind at ease with this article. Ahead, we’ll talk about how a hot air balloon would land in a disaster scenario and why parachutes aren’t needed. We’ll also delve into safety stats and how balloon pilots earn their wings so you can feel comfortable with hot air ballooning!
Why You Don’t Need a Parachute When Hot Air Ballooning
As we’ve discussed elsewhere on the blog, when hot air ballooning, it’s not uncommon to reach heights of 2,500 feet. At that height, you’re exceeding some of the tallest buildings in the United States, including the One World Trade Center in New York at 1,776 feet, Central Park Tower in New York at 1,550 feet, and Willis Tower in Chicago at 1,451 feet.
It’s perfectly understandable to want to have a contingency plan in place should the worst happen. You know, like the hot air balloon plummeting out of the air. You figured you’d bring a parachute you can strap to your back and unfurl if you have to abandon ship, so to speak.
Unless you’re skydiving out of a hot air balloon, there’s no need to carry a parachute. It’s not a requirement by hot air ballooning companies across the United States either.
Why? There’s just no need for a parachute.
Whatever your concerns are with hot air ballooning, those outcomes transpiring are probably very unlikely. If you’re worried about the balloon running out of propane, the balloon pilot won’t let that happen. They have a fuel gauge they will watch throughout your flight that indicates when the burner system is running low on fuel. If the burners need more fuel, the balloon pilot will refill them, simple as that.
What if there’s no more fuel left onboard, you ask? Then the balloon captain would look for a place to make a sudden but safe landing.
Maybe you’re not concerned so much about the hot air balloon running out of fuel, but the burner system failing. If your balloon has a single-burner system, then all it takes is that one burner going down. Even in a two-burner system, the failure of one burner could still be disastrous.
Let’s talk what-ifs just so you know what would happen. In this situation, the hot air balloon burner system has completely failed. The balloon pilot tries to restore it, but they can’t get the burners working again.
Since the burners create the hot air that provides lift and buoyancy and essentially allows you to fly, without it, you’ll begin coming down. The balloon pilot usually vents the hot air through the balloon or turns the blast valve (which sends propane to the burner system) off and on periodically for a gradual landing.
With no burner system, there’s no way the balloon pilot can control your landing speed, right?
Wrong! The hot air balloon itself will act as a parachute if you begin falling. The envelope aka the balloon fabric will catch the air and ride it until you’re down on the ground. Sure, if it’s a particularly windy day, the landing might be a little fast and sharp, but then again, you shouldn’t be ballooning on a windy day anyway, so that’s probably not an issue.
With the balloon behaving like a parachute, you’ll descend at the same speed you would when parachuting at that height. The descent rate is roughly 17 feet a second, which is approximately 4.77 miles per hour.
Considering that hot air balloons travel at an average speed of 5 MPH, you wouldn’t notice too much of a difference between regular ballooning and landing should all parts of the balloon fail.
What about Oxygen? Do Hot Air Balloons Carry That?
That last section was certainly eye-opening. You feel better having read that information, but you still have your concerns about hot air ballooning. You worry that as you ascend in the balloon that you’ll run out of oxygen. Do hot air balloons carry oxygen?
Hot air balloons will carry oxygen if you fly over 12,500 feet high as mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration or FAA, but for all other flights, oxygen is not required nor necessary.
Remember what we said in the last section, that the average height of a hot air balloon flight is around 2,500 feet. That’s about the max height you’ll reach, by the way. Balloons may fly as low as 500 feet if they can do so safely, or they’ll float between 500 and 2,500 feet.
You can go as high as 26,000 feet before you need oxygen. Not 2,600 feet, but 26,000. In other words, there’s a difference of more than 11,000 feet between how high you’ll fly in a hot air balloon versus what’s known as the Death Zone.
Sure, do some professional hot air ballooners eager to establish streaks and beat records fly higher than 2,500 feet? Absolutely, but there’s no need to concern yourself with that since you’re on a leisurely hot air balloon ride.
Hot air balloons will usually not carry oxygen simply because there’s no need to. The only exception to that rule is if you’re planning–with the guidance of the hot air balloon company, of course–to fly at heights of at least 10,000 feet, sometimes as high as 12,500 feet. Then the balloon pilot will bring a canister of oxygen if not several.
The Federal Aviation Administration or FAA has rules mandating when hot air balloons must travel with oxygen. Per their regulations, if you’re flying for 30 minutes at heights of 12,500 feet or higher, then yes, you must have oxygen.
Breathing in this supplemental oxygen can ward off altitude sickness, which in mild cases can cause shortness of breath, decreased appetite, fatigue, wooziness, and headache.
How will the balloon pilot know at which altitude the hot air balloon is flying? They use an altimeter. The balloon pilot doesn’t want to get into hot water with the FAA any more than you want to suffer from altitude sickness, so they’ll certainly watch their altitude.
Is Hot Air Ballooning Safe?
We thought we’d also dedicate a section to discussing the safety of hot air ballooning you can see that there’s really nothing to worry about. We’ve touched on safety stats before on the blog, but it’s been a while, so here’s a refresher.
According to a 2013 report from the journal Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance, in a span of 12 years from 2000 to 2012, the National Transportation Safety Board reported 78 hot air balloon accidents. Up to 518 people were involved in these crashes.
Of the 518 affected parties, only five died. Another 91 were seriously injured and the rest weren’t seriously hurt. Most of the injuries were centered around the lower extremities, as many as 56 percent. That’s due to how 81 percent of the accidents happened as the hot air balloon landed and 65 percent of the accidents were due to hard landings.
The balloon pilot will always do everything in their power to give hot air balloon riders a smooth, surefire landing. They’ll select a safe landing place that’s free of dangerous power lines. There will be no animals in the surrounding area, and a road will be in the vicinity so the ground crew can help if an accident did occur.
Not to downplay the fatalities, as any death is unfortunate, but hot air ballooning does not have a high rate of deaths. Five deaths out of 518 people is a rate of 25.9 percent. We’d say hot air ballooning is very safe.
How Do Hot Air Balloon Pilots Get Started?
When hot air ballooning, you put your wellbeing in the hands of a balloon pilot. Just how does the pilot get their job? Do they have to undergo any training? Yes, they do. Balloon pilots are licensed through the FAA as well.
Before earning one’s license, aspiring balloon pilots must undergo FAA training for a set period. Then they have to take a written exam and pass it. If they do that, they must next schedule an FAA-approved balloon flight where they fly solo at various altitudes.
If the aspiring pilot passes everything, then they receive their license. You can trust that they’re capable of flying you in a hot air balloon and landing you safely when the time comes!
Carrying a parachute when hot air ballooning isn’t necessary unless you’re skydiving. The balloon could become like a parachute itself if the burner system failed and the balloon lost the hot air it needs to fly. We hope this article has made you feel confident enough to schedule hot air balloon ride!